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Alexander Williams

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Associate Professor, Linguistics Associate Professor, Philosophy

(301) 405-1607

1401 D Marie Mount Hall
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Research Expertise

Philosophy of Language
Semantics
Syntax

Publications

Events in Semantics

Event Semantics says that clauses in natural languages are descriptions of events. Why believe this?

Linguistics | Philosophy

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Dates:

Event Semantics (ES) says that clauses in natural languages are descriptions of events. Why believe this? The answer cannot be that we use clauses to talk about events, or that events are important in ontology or psychology. Other sorts of things have the same properties, but no special role in semantics. The answer must be that this view helps to explain the semantics of natural languages. But then, what is it to explain the semantics of natural languages? Here there are many approaches, differing on whether natural languages are social and objective or individual and mental; whether the semantics delivers truth values at contexts or just constraints on truth-evaluable thoughts; which inferences it should explain as formally provable, if any; and which if any grammatical patterns it should explain directly. The argument for ES will differ accordingly, as will the consequences, for ontology, psychology, or linguistics, of its endorsement. In this chapter I trace the outlines of this story, sketching four distinct arguments for the analysis that ES makes possible: with it we can treat a dependent phrase and its syntactic host as separate predicates of related or identical events. Analysis of this kind allows us to state certain grammatical generalizations, formalize patterns of entailment, provide an extensional semantics for adverbs, and most importantly to derive certain sentence meanings that are not easily derived otherwise. But in addition, it will systematically validate inferences that are unsound, if we think conventionally about events and semantics. The moral is, with ES we cannot maintain both an ordinary metaphysics and a truth-conditional semantics that is simple. Those who would accept ES, and draw conclusions about the world or how we view it, must therefore choose which concession to make. I discuss four notable choices.

Why control of PRO in rationale clauses is not a relation between arguments

"The ship was sunk to collect the insurance." The sinker may be the intended collector of insurance. But not, argue Jeff and Alexander against the common view, because of a grammatical relation between arguments in the two clauses.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Jeffrey Green
Dates:
"The ship was sunk to collect the insurance." The sinker may be the intended collector of insurance. But not, argue Jeff and Alexander against the common view, because of a grammatical relation between arguments in the two clauses.

Arguments in Syntax and Semantics

A primer on the fundamentals of argument structure in syntax and semantics.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Dates:
Argument structure – the pattern of underlying relations between a predicate and its dependents – is at the base of syntactic theory and the theory of the interface with semantics. This comprehensive guide explores the motives for thematic and event-structural decomposition, and its relation to structure in syntax. It also discusses broad patterns in the linking of syntactic to semantic relations, and includes insightful case studies on passive and resultative constructions. Semantically explicit and syntactically impartial, with a careful, interrogative approach, Williams clarifies notions of argument within both lexicalist and nonlexicalist approaches.

Agents in Mandarin and Igbo resultatives

The semantics of subjecthood in resultative constructions, comparing Igbo to English and Mandarin.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Dates:
A resultative complex predicate may include an agentive verb, as "cut open" includes "cut". I ask how best to describe variation between Mandarin, Igbo and English in two features of such resultatives. First, while they can generally occur in unaccusative clauses in Mandarin, with the implied agent unexpressed, this is never possible in English, and in Igbo it depends on the verb. Second, when they inhabit a transitive clause the subject must name the agent of the verb's event in Igbo and English, but not Mandarin. Initially this suggests that agentive verbs have their agents as lexical arguments, sometimes in Igbo and always in English. But this leads to unattractive complications. I discuss an alternative, of taking the meaning of the construction to be somewhat narrower in Igbo and English than Mandarin.

Causal VVs in Mandarin

The syntax and interpretation of Mandarin verbal compounds with a resultative interpretation, in overview.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Dates:
Many verbal predicates in Mandarin, called VVs, have two parts that can be separated by at most the markers of the positive and negative potential form, de and bu. This chapter surveys the interpretation and syntax of causal VVs, which imply a causal relation between the events of the first and second verb.

Null Complement Anaphors as definite descriptions

"Ron won" is less like "Ron won it" than it is like "Ron won the contest."

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Dates:
This paper develops the observation that, for many predicates, Null Complement Anaphora (NCA) is like anaphora with a descriptively empty definite description (Condoravdi & Gawron 1996, Gauker 2012). I consider how to distinguish this sort of NCA from pronouns theoretically, and then observe an unnoticed exception to the pattern. For verbs like notice, NCA is neither like a definite description nor like a pronoun, raising a new puzzle of how to represent it.

Themes, cumulativity, and resultatives: Comments on Kratzer 2003

Alexander Williams argues against Kratzer's claim that direct objects do not in general bind a general thematic relation.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Dates:

According to Kratzer (2003), the thematic relation Theme, construed very generally, is not a ‘‘natural relation.’’ She says that the ‘‘natural relations’’ are ‘‘cumulative’’ and argues that Theme is not cumulative, in contrast to Agent. It is therefore best, she concludes, to remove Theme from the palette of semantic analysis. Here I oppose the premises of Kratzer’s argument and then introduce a new challenge to her conclusion, based on the resultative construction in Mandarin. The facts show that Theme and Agent are on equal footing, insofar as neither has the property that Kratzer’s conjecture requires of a natural relation.

Patients in Igbo and Mandarin

An argument from resultative compounds in Igbo and Mandarin that direct objects bind a thematic relation introduced, not by either verb, but by their structural context.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Dates:
An argument from resultative compounds in Igbo and Mandarin that direct objects bind a thematic relation introduced, not by either verb, but by their structural context.